A Master Historian Revisits America's Bloodiest War

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, March 2007 | Go to article overview

A Master Historian Revisits America's Bloodiest War


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


A Master Historian Revisits America's Bloodiest War This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. James M. McPherson. Oxford University Press. 260 pages; notes; index; $28.

By Col. Cole C. Kingseed

U.S. Army retired

Long recognized as America's preeminent Civil War historian, James McPherson has won numerous awards for literary excellence. Currently the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, McPherson has published numerous volumes on the Civil War, including Abraham Lincoln and the second American Revolution; Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War; and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize in 1998.

In This Mighty Scourge, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom attempts to answer questions that he has confronted for 40 years: Why did the war come? What were the aims of each combatant? What strategies were employed to achieve these aims? Did the war's outcome justify the horrific toll in casualties? The result is a superb collection of 16 essays which, McPherson states, "reaffirm some of my old interpretations, but also offer several new ones."

McPherson divides his anthology into five sections, each addressing one of the fundamental aspects of America's bloodiest conflict. The preliminary section examines the causes of war. Led by predominantly Southernborn historians in the 20th century, the "Progressive school" viewed the Confederacy as fighting for the constitutional principle of states' rights and self-government and for the preservation of a stable, agrarian civilization. Dismissing these interpretations that sought to attribute the advent of the war to a clash between interest groups and classes, McPherson posits that in the 1860s, few people in either the North or the South would have dissented from President Abraham Lincoln's insistence that slavery "was somehow, the cause of the war."

In revisiting the evolution of the mythology surrounding the "lost cause," McPherson analyzes why the South lost and why the North won the war. In his farewell address, Gen. Robert E. Lee attributed the loss to the South's being forced to yield "to overwhelming numbers and resources." McPherson, on the other hand, joins historian Gary Gallagher in believing that the Confederate story "cannot be written except in counterpoint with the Union story." Each time the Confederacy appeared on the verge of triumph, Northern victories blunted the Southern momentum. In the autumn of 1862, for example, the Confederacy launched simultaneous invasions in both Maryland and Kentucky. The Union's victory was thus not a foregone conclusion and it certainly was anything but inevitable. McPherson views the battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam as the war's true turning point, for had Lee triumphed, foreign recognition most surely would have followed.

Though McPherson obviously admires Lee as a strategist, he reserves his greatest admiration for the command team of Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Only when Grant and Sherman forged a winning strategy that combined the relentless hammering to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia with the march through the Deep South by Sherman's army group to wreck the Southern infrastructure was Northern victory assured. …

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